Hub airlines have a delicate relationship with their customers in the cities where they hub. US Airways and Philadelphia are the perfect example.
Travelers appreciate US Airways’ nonstop flights throughout the day to dozens of cities, but they complain bitterly about high fares on monopoly routes, and about service at the airport and onboard flights that has often been mediocre at best.
Over the last two years, however, the tension between US Airways and its Philadelphia customers appears to have changed markedly, at least if the number of complaints that reach my in-box is any measure.
US Airways may never have a true love affair with the region’s travelers. But the gripes I hear these days are mostly about US Airways’ fares, fees, and ticketing policies, not about lost bags and rude employees.
US Airways’ leaders drew me and other airline reporters to their Arizona headquarters last week with presentations about the company’s financial and operational status that help explain why the complaints have diminished.
The executives were upbeat, especially considering their disappointment that months of talks about a merger with United Airlines had ended abruptly a week before when United decided to talk to Continental Airlines instead. United and Continental are expected to announce their marriage Monday, according to published reports.
Even if the two carriers merge into the world’s largest airline, US Airways foresees a bright future for itself, in no small measure because it’s running a far more reliable airline than it did a few years ago.
Chairman and chief executive officer Doug Parker opened the show by contending that, even if US Airways won’t have a merger partner of its own, industry consolidation will take empty airplane seats out of the air and reduce competition.
“Our airline is well-run,” he said. “If others do merge . . . it makes the industry stronger and makes our stand-alone status stronger.”
Of course, any airline’s success also depends on a good economy that allows customers to travel at higher fares and on oil prices that don’t run wild as they did two years ago, factors beyond the industry’s control.
What US Airways’ managers can control is the customers’ experience. And as customers know, building a foundation to provide good service was needed more at Philadelphia International Airport than at any place US Airways flies.
In 2006 and 2007, US Airways was mishandling more than 30 out of every 1,000 pieces of checked baggage at the Philadelphia hub, a figure so embarrassing that it wouldn’t divulge it then. The number is less than half that now.
As The Inquirer has reported more recently, US Airways has installed new midlevel managers to oversee every aspect of service and has given employees the equipment and technology needed to keep better track of checked bags.
The systemwide numbers of lost or damaged bags and the complaints filed with federal regulators were reduced by a third last year.
The airline has a more stable airport workforce, too, in part because the recession has kept fewer employees from leaving to seek other work, said Suzanne Boda, senior vice president for East Coast operations. She estimated that employee turnover was now about 30 percent to 35 percent a year, less than half what it was two years ago.
Chief operating officer Robert Isom added that as important as any other factor at Philadelphia and elsewhere is running an on-time airline. Across the whole route system, 81 percent of flights last year operated within 15 minutes of their schedule.
About four out of five of US Airways’ first flights of the day from Philadelphia now leave on time, a key component in keeping the system running on schedule the rest of the day, Isom added.
In a question-and-answer session, Parker made the same point. He said US Airways didn’t need a total image makeover or a special marketing campaign to overcome its old reputation.
“What we need to do is run a reliable airline,” he said.
OK, so some of you are probably thinking that US Airways served me the company Kool-Aid out there in the desert. I fully expect to hear from those who have had bad experiences lately.
To assure you I know there’s still much room for improvement, I’ll tell you about the e-mail I received last week from Kathy Phillips, a Philadelphia-based frequent flier, one of the millions whose flights to Europe were disrupted by volcanic ash.
Phillips and two friends planned to meet in London, with each scheduled to fly April 22 on a different airline from different cities. Because they weren’t sure if the flights would operate, they decided the day before to cancel the trip.
The British Airways customer got a full refund. American Airlines gave its customer credit for the full fare with no rebooking fee and no restriction on the number of flights she could take to use up the full value of the ticket.
But US Airways not only didn’t offer a refund but also required the $780 ticket to be rebooked within 14 days or pay a $250 change fee. It could be used for just one round-trip flight. Unable to make plans for another long journey, Phillips felt she had no choice but to use it for a business trip to Florida, and to fly one way in first class.
So, yes, US Airways still has plenty of work to do.